Senator Peter Courtney announced he won’t seek re-election this year, marking the end of a 38-year legislative career and a 20-year run as Senate President, the longest tenure in Oregon history. Courtney will turn 79 in June.
New legislative leadership is a certainty in the 2023 session and even sooner in the House. Five-term House Speaker Tina Kotek announced she will leave her legislative post January 21, just days before the 2022 session convenes. Kotek is running for the Democratic nomination for governor. Senator Betsy Johnson already resigned her legislative seat to mount a full-time campaign as a non-affiliated candidate for governor. Courtney will continue to preside over the Senate in the 2022 short session.
CFM co-founder Pat McCormick met Courtney in 1979 at a school meeting where the then Salem city councilor explained temporary street closures of concern to parents. McCormick was impressed with Courtney and suggested that his boss, House Speaker Hardy Myers, recruit the young city councilor to run for a Salem House seat. He did and Courtney won the seat in 1980.
“His slogan ‘Nobody Works Harder’ for his city council campaign remained his tagline in his legislative race,” McCormick recalls. “His lawn signs and materials illustrated that theme with a rabbit on roller skates that a designer friend created for Peter. It was quirky and fun and somehow an accurate reflection of Peter.”
The tone of Courtney’s legislative career was set on the first bill he carried in the House, which dealt with outboard motor noise on boats. “He brought a 55-gallon drum on the floor filled with water and an outboard motor to demonstrate the sound it made,” McCormick says. “From then on, when he was speaking on the floor, members paid attention.”
Courtney learned the lesson of teamwork while in the House, McCormick says. “Peter forged a long-term alliance and friendship with long-time Republican Rep. Tony Van Vliet. The pair worked jointly to persuade colleagues to consider a sales tax plan that was unpopular in both parties, but that was seen as a critical component of stabilizing Oregon’s tax structure.”
The young legislator also learned to respect deal-making. “Peter has shown great respect for the institution of the legislature throughout his career,” McCormick explains. “I think Hardy helped cement Peter’s commitment to the legislative process. He mentored Peter, and memorably woodshedded him when he cast a surprise vote opposing the budget deal Hardy had worked out in a special budget-cutting session. But both held the view that the process was about people solving problems, not partisans seeking advantage.”
Courtney’s Return to the House
After unsuccessful bids in 1984 for the Democratic nomination in the Fifth Congressional District and in 1986 for a state Senate seat, Courtney won election to the House again in 1988. Two years later, he was chosen leader of the House Democratic Caucus. Courtney won a Senate seat in 1998 and was re-elected five times.
There were five legislative special sessions during 2002 to deal with budget issues and Courtney played a key role in negotiations with majority Republicans. He became Senate President in 2003 as part of a power-sharing agreement because of 15-15 Democrat-Republican split. He has been Senate President ever since.
Courtney may be best remembered by his push for annual legislative sessions, which voters approved in 2010 after he did test runs in 2008 and 2010 to show the value of short sessions, especially to address mid-biennial budget matters. Courtney also has been the driving force for Capitol renovation, which led to updates to the two office wings from 2007-2008 and is continuing with improvements and seismic reinforcement to the main Capitol building. He previously worked to finance seismic reinforcements of school buildings.
Throughout his legislative career, Courtney has devoted much of his energy to mental health issues and reconstructing Oregon State Hospital in Salem, which was where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed. He won passage in a 2013 special session for a cigarette tax increase to boost mental health treatment.
Courtney also has been a strong advocate for public transportation, serving previously as a board member for the Salem Area Mass Transit District. “Without his insight and support, we never would have passed legislation to put in place statewide dedicated funding for public transportation,” according to CFM Partner Dale Penn II, who represented the transit district during the 2017 session.
Courtney considered retirement in 2017 after he secured state money to renovate the Salem YMCA, but decided to seek re-election in 2018, despite nagging health issues. Part of his decision was based on a joint agreement with venerated Salem Republican legislator Jackie Winters to both. If one was going to run, they both were running. Winters, who passed away in 2019, was a close ally and friend of the Senate President, despite being on different sides of the aisle.
When Courtney ran for Congress, he met with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, sharing stories about Boston and politics and laughing like lifelong friends.
“As a resident of Salem all of my life, I have incredibly fond memories of both Peter and Jackie serving this community with passion, dedication and intelligence,” says Penn. “They worked well together and showed a better, more collaborative path for everyone in the state to follow.”
He also played a key role in the 2019 session to push through a commercial activity tax to boost K-12 school funding by $1 billion.
Courtney earned a reputation as a mercurial and often animated political figure. “He runs his chamber with a mixture of browbeating insults and heartfelt concern for the institution,” OPB Capitol reporter Dick VanderHart notes. The quirky rabbit on his early campaign signs remained an accurate reflection of Courtney during his storied career.
“For all his expressive remonstrances and sometimes gloomy predictions, Courtney is thoughtful, caring and sincere about his legislative work,” says Penn, who enjoys a close working relationship with the Senate President and his staff. “When he gives you his word, you knew it meant something.”
All New Leadership in 2023 Session
His departure from legislative life will touch off a battle within the Senate Democratic Caucus of who should succeed Courtney. The caucus has become more liberal in recent years so Courtney’s successor may not have the same ability or reputation to cajole Senate Republicans.
More broadly, Courtney’s retirement decision coincides with Governor Brown being termed out and the decision by long-time House Speaker Tina Kotek to give up her seat before the 2022 session to campaign for governor. House Majority Leader Barbara Smith-Warner has indicated she plans to step down, too, which means the 2023 legislature will have new Democratic leaders to work with a new governor. Senate Republicans tapped Senator Tim Knopp as their leader. Former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Courtney was born in Philadelphia and grew up in West Virginia. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Rhode Island and a law degree from Boston University. One of Courtney’s fondest memories, as recalled by McCormick, was meeting House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
“I set up a schedule for him when he ran for Congress to meet folks in DC. We visited delegation members and campaign groups,” McCormick says. “But the best meeting was introducing Peter to Tip O’Neill. Peter and Tip shared stories on Boston and politics, laughing like lifelong friends.”
Courtney came to Oregon in 1970 as a law clerk for the Oregon Court of Appeals. He met and married his wife, Margie, in 1976. She worked for many years in Courtney’s legislative offices. They have three sons and five grandchildren.